While the publisher of Cyclelicious enthusiastically supports Bus Rapid Transit plans in the Santa Clara Valley, San Jose bike advocate Peter Smith is equally ardent in his opposition to BRT. When I asked Peter for details on why he opposes BRT, he graciously agreed to write up this provocative guest blog post.
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) presents the most serious threat to the growth of cycling in the world today.
BRT has three characteristics that engender its ability to hinder cycling:
- the propensity to swallow up precious road width that should be used for protected bike lanes,
- often runs in curbside lanes, effectively preventing cycling on a crucial corridor, and
- creates a harsh, dystopian landscape that is not pleasant to cycle through.
Cycling advocates should concentrate not on making cycling conditions better for existing cyclists, but on creating conditions that will allow everyone to bike.
Public transit advocates should focus more on how to cure the problem of transit dependence and less on just trying to alleviate some of the worst symptoms of transit dependence.
This post focuses on the effects of BRT on cycling.
Protected bike lanes, direct routes required
Protected bike lanes
Protected bike lanes are required to allow everyone to bike. Most people cite ‘fear of cars’ — known as ‘perception of risk’ in cycling studies — as the primary reason they do not bike.
Protected bike lanes have been proven to decrease this perception of risk, thus increasing the number of people who bike.
Protected bike lane, downtown San Jose, CA.
Cyclists also need to be able to travel directly, like everyone else. This is why cyclists must be able to travel on the most direct routes, which are often the routes which have been slated for BRT.
BRT Threat #1: No room for protected bike lanes
Most people are effectively banned from cycling on most roads not because they are legally barred from doing so, but because the cycling conditions on those roads are not tolerable.
Not even room for non-protected bike lanes
Exclusive Bus Lanes
To qualify as a BRT system according to leading BRT proponent, ITDP, a bus system must exhibit several key characteristics to a sufficient degree. Of the three most important (all equally important according to ITDP), one is called ‘Segregated right-of-way’ — i.e. buses need to have their own lane.
Dedicating a full lane in either direction to only buses has the effect of increasing the motor traffic pressure on remaining travel lanes. Car drivers resent having to face increased traffic pressure. This creates a veritable political impossibility for cycling advocates trying to get space for protected bike lanes.
Median Busway Alignment
One of the other two most important characteristics that must be exhibited by bus systems to qualify as BRT is ‘Busway alignment’ — that is, where are these exclusive bus lanes going to run — in the middle of the street, or in the curbside lane? The median-aligned busway, unlike the curbside busway alignment, requires a tremendous amount of road width — bus lanes + bus stations — this works to prevent the introduction of protected bike lanes on that road.
How willing will drivers be to give up space to bicycles now?
BRT Threat #2: Risk of possible prevention of all biking on road
The bus-only lanes can also run curbside — directly adjacent to the curb — this leaves no place to put a protected bike lane. Select Bus Service in New York City runs in the curbside lane like this. Bikes are effectively barred from the streets with SBS. Examples abound.
Curbside bus-only lanes: No place for bicycles :-(
BRT Threat #3: Creation of a harsh, dystopian landscape
The term ‘busway’ — ‘bus’ + ‘highway’ — is often used with ‘BRT’. This makes sense, as BRT systems exhibit highway-like characteristics. Highways generate pollution and noise, and are very hostile to pedestrians and cyclists. Making roads more highway-like with the introduction of busways is the wrong thing to do if we want to increase walking and cycling rates.
In the mockumentary, Radiant City, James Howard Kunstler said when sitting on a park bench next to a highway, “It’s an amazingly-brutal environment. … The assault on your neurology is really impressive, and you really have to be here to appreciate it.” We should not tolerate these types of environments. If we want more people to walk and bike, we must not tolerate these types of environments. Our roads need to be quieter, safer, more beautiful, more pleasant places to walk and bike.
Sustainable street in Guangzhou, China? A wretched kind of “modernism” this!
Deal with the devil: The ‘bike lanes’ carrot
To overcome community opposition to a BRT plan, its proponents will offer various ‘carrots’ — new streetlights, improved streetscaping, beautification, “traffic calming,” a newly paved road, and, of course, bike lanes along at least part of the route.
Cycling advocates should not accept this deal with the devil. We can and will get real protected bike lanes, and the only way we will get those protected bike lanes is if there is road width available. If we take the ‘free’ bike lanes to accept these BRT projects, we will limit the amount of cycling on that major corridor to the ‘Enthused and Confident’ cyclist demographic — only about 7% of the population. This effectively ends any chance of cycling becoming a mainstream mode of transportation.
An IT professional now living downtown San Jose, Peter Smith spends his time working on what he believes to be the next great hope for humanity after bicycles — worker co-ops — and dreaming of the day it’s safe and comfortable for most everyone to take a leisurely ride down The Alameda for no particular reason at all.
In case you think Peter is tilting at windmills, you might have first seen Peter’s writing at his Google Maps Bike There site, in which he campaigned several years for Google to include a “Bike There” option that Google finally incorporated in 2010. You can find his other work at his Weebly site.